If I had time, I’d tell you stories.

I’d tell you about Nicole, a high achiever who skipped level 3 and had to seek additional Spanish courses through post secondary education options.

I’d tell you about Shawna, who felt so inspired, she hosted an exchange student, lived a summer in Spain with her years later and now is learning Farsi in the National Guard.

I’d tell you about Kayla, who at the end of class told me, “My face hurts because I’m laughing so much!”

But Nicole, Shawna and Kayla would succeed despite my teaching.

Who you really need to know is Aaron, a special needs boy so defiant and with such a troubled life that he paced the hallway, refusing to talk to anyone or go to any class. But he came to Spanish. Not only would he willingly attend, but he regularly surprised the high achievers by producing complex, spontaneous sentences most could not produce.

You need to know about about Tiffany, an English learner who sat, attentive but silent, almost the entire year, yet scored Intermediate Low on independent listening and reading tests.

You need to know about Jason, a boy so shy and anxious he invented any reason to see the nurse during Spanish class. After twenty weeks of pouring many mini pitchers of love on him, he was in front of the class, speaking Spanish with a smile.

These stories, of students who do not usually count themselves among the smartest, best academically prepared or most highly motivated, are the stories I would love to share with you. These are the stories that reinforce my belief that all students can acquire a second (or third!) language.

Grant Boulanger with former MN Teachers of the Year.
Grant Boulanger with former MN Teachers of the Year.

This is my 16th year of teaching and it’s fair to say that the first few years I, like so many others, floundered. Teaching was very labor intensive. It wasn’t much fun, and my results were, honestly, lackluster. But I have inched a little bit closer to my vision of what it means to be a public educator.

Here in the United States, we have generations of Americans whose language learning story begins, “I took three years, but I can’t say a word.”

Historically, across our great country, of 100 9th graders who begin a language program, fewer than 10 remain as seniors. That’s a conservative estimate.

Listening to my students’ moms and dads at conferences last night, it’s clear that the other 90% walk away believing language learning is too hard, that languages feel irrelevant to their lives, or that they’re “just not cut out” for learning a language.

The 10% that remains tend to be high-achieving and college-bound. They’re disproportionately females. And they’re disproportionately white.

As a public educator, I have to ask myself, “Can only the college-bound acquire language? Why these discrepancies? Is this OK? Is there something about the way we do things that actually promotes these results? What can I do to change it?”

We live in a world where federal dollars are allocated by stiff competition. Curriculum has been narrowed to address high stakes testing areas. Computerized software has recently been adopted in Florida and language departments across the country are shrinking. I’m terrified that if we are not able to show greater success, the situation will get worse. We have to find a way to make language acquisition work for the masses.

About 11 years ago, I decided the results I was seeing were not OK and I began to reflect on and explore techniques and approaches that would help me create a classroom in which ALL students could find success as language learners.

I want to share with you today a few of the principles that have shaped the last decade of my career and will serve as my platform as I represent MN at the Central States Conference in March.

I believe that ALL students can acquire another language.

I believe that language acquisition happens when we understand meaningful messages and that production and accuracy come over time.

I believe that cultural competence, learning to respect and be curious about another culture, begins with learning to honor and be kind to the person sitting next to you.

I believe that the ability to communicate develops only when we actually engage in meaningful communication. When we communicate with students in a way that is meaningful, relevant to their lives and understandable, motivation will take care of itself.

It’s for these reasons I choose to make my students the subject of class and choose techniques that empower them to be the natural language learners they are.

I am convinced that communicating about meaningful topics, making language completely comprehensible, and personalizing the classroom are the ingredients that have brought enormous joy to my classroom and have helped increase achievement and enrollment in our department.

I feel a real, burning sense of urgency around these issues of equity of achievement and enrollment. Our jobs depend on finding ways to create a more tolerant, multilingual public one classroom at a time over the course of our careers.

But not only does our future depend on it, the other 90% deserve it.

Thank you for your attention and your support as I continue on to represent MN at Central States in March.